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Cut the deficit Unaffordable state work force growth wasn't stemmed by useless buyout offer

The governor came up short. In fact, he came up so short in the state's severance incentive that it looks like he wasn't really trying. Score another for the state's unions at the expense, as always, of its taxpayers.

Gov. David A. Paterson's program offered workers a paltry $20,000 to leave state employment later this year. He projected that 4,500 workers would take the buyout and counted the savings into this year's budget.

Any human resources executive or labor leader knows no one is going to leave a job that pays upward of $50,000 for a $20,000 buyout, unless ready to leave anyway. So instead of motivating 4,500 people with a large buyout, the governor gave about $22 million to the 1,089 workers who will take their leave.

Furthermore, given his past record of adding 8,700 new employees, there's little reason to believe these 1,089 won't be replaced in the near future. Despite that, the administration claims its overall dollar savings goal will be achieved. No one has explained that alchemy, yet, so pardon our doubts.

This is a significant problem because, with those savings already factored into the state's 2009-10 budget, they don't help to fill the cavernous $2.1 billion deficit the state is facing this budget year. Indeed, if the projected savings aren't achieved, the budget gap may be even larger.

The problem began with Paterson's caving to union pressure, a back-of-the-hand to taxpayers. As budget talks began this year, the governor drew a line: Either he needed concessions from the state's unions or there would be layoffs. Among his plans were to freeze pay hikes for state workers, defer five days of salary in 2009 and modify state retiree health insurance benefits. None of these admittedly regrettable conditions is unfamiliar to workers in the private sector this year. Millions of New Yorkers have given up money and benefits in the face of this recession.

Predictably enough, the unions refused to go along and Paterson quite properly threatened layoffs. But they never happened. Instead, the pitiful severance program was announced. In the worst financial crisis Albany has faced in decades, virtually nothing was done on the labor side to protect taxpayers. It's pathetic.

This is not a small thing. The total cost of 8,700 jobs with all benefits could run to more than three-quarters of a billion dollars. That's not a realistic approach to addressing a $2.1 billion deficit. The governor made a big mistake in allowing these hires, and he has to correct it as any other chief executive addresses a deficit -- with regrettable but necessary layoffs.

But the question is, what will the governor and the unions actually do as the state confronts the new deficit and, in a matter of months, another wrenching budget season? Paterson is talking tough about the budget again, directing most of his frustration at the Legislature (which is a fine target). But he talked tough last year and the result was an irresponsible budget that protected the unions while he failed to keep finances in balance.

Nothing will change in the coming days and months unless the governor and legislators hear from taxpayers. Make no mistake, the solution to this problem is going to hurt. When revenues fall short of expenses, the only choices are to find more money -- raise taxes again -- or cut costs, which inevitably means going where the money is, health and education.

There can be no serious thought to raising taxes yet again. Lawmakers already hit up wealthier New Yorkers in the current budget and, as residents of this dysfunctional state already know, our overall tax bill is the nation's highest. We can't recover our economic footing by driving even more jobs and residents to other states. But lawmakers will do that if they can. When it comes down to it, they will sacrifice anything and anyone if it keeps their union masters happy.

Let your Senate and Assembly representatives know what you expect of them. They're already hearing from the unions and other special interests they favor. If taxpayers want their voices heard this time -- if they want something more than a joke severance package to be in the mix -- they need to start speaking up now, loudly and clearly.

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